Growing up in Baltimore, Charlene Harris used to hear her father -- a bass player named Charles Harris who performed with Lionel Hampton and Nat King Cole -- talk about what it was like to perform in the South during the 1940s and 1950s. With most hotels and restaurants off limits to African-Americans, the musicians often stayed in the homes of black families but could still face discrimination on the road.
South House, Charlene Harris' first play, is loosely inspired by her late father's experiences and features a band with the same name as his former group, Three Strikes and a Miss (although her father is not a character in the play). Having its premiere at Arena Players through Sunday, the play recounts a chapter of history rarely seen on stage.
Harris sets the action in the Birmingham, Ala., home of a minister and his wife. The couple frequently take in visiting musicians and are pleasantly surprised to discover that the latest boarders include a lady -- the singer who is the "Miss" in the band's name.
Several of the characters have secrets that slowly -- and at times melodramatically -- work their way to the surface. The band's vocalist (portrayed by smooth-singing Laura Sligh) is having relationship problems with the pianist (Randolph Smith); if they split, it could mean the end of the band.
And the minister (Doug W. Goldman) and his wife (Cynthia Forbes) have a grown son who's a gifted saxophone player, but never leaves his room. When Sligh's character decides to give Forbes' cowed housewife a makeover, the changes turn out to be more than cosmetic. By the end of the play, this "Miss" has transformed the lives of the minister, his wife and possibly their shut-in son.
The script and production, directed by Harris, have a few rough patches. The speeches by the preacher's wife about self-determination (in the first act) and change (in the second) are too pat. And it's unfortunate that the band's big number, Nat King Cole's "Straighten Up and Fly Right," is performed to a recording that requires Sligh to sing over a vocal track.
Maurice X. Daniel delivers a touching performance as the band's guitarist, a man who stutters when he talks about anything other than music, and Jackie Blake plays some lovely off-stage saxophone riffs as the preacher's unseen son.
Before this production, South House received staged readings at Arena Players and at the 2005 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C. Harris hopes to turn the play into a musical, and though the script needs fine-tuning, this distinctive material seems like a natural for musical theater.
Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15. Call 410-728-6500.
Bill Pullman's play
Actor Bill Pullman (Independence Day, Sleepless in Seattle) will be in residence at the Theatre Project next month working on his original play, Expedition 6. An account of the rescue of two American astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut from the International Space Station after the Shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003, the piece will incorporate everything from trapeze work to original music. Pullman, who was last in the area starring in the Kennedy Center's revival of The Subject Was Roses in January, will direct Expedition 6 but will not appear in it.
An excerpt from the play, followed by a discussion with the cast and creative team, will be presented at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., at 8 p.m. July 21 as part of Artscape. A full production will be staged at the theater the next weekend (show times to be announced). For more information, call 410-752-8558.